SHINING brilliantly with its own light in literature and statesmanship, England was a humble satellite in music and art. The retardation in art had many causes. The gloomy skies could hardly be one of them, for skies gloomed in the Netherlands too, and yet Holland had as many artists as windmills. The Channel may have been a cause, shielding England from the arts as well as the wars of the Continent. Perhaps English talent was too absorbed in commerce and (after Walpole) in war. Protestantism might be blamed for the becalming of English art, for art grows on imagination, and Protestantism had banished imagination from art and dedicated it to literature and theology; but, again, Holland was Protestant. Probably the chief factor was the Puritan revolt and legacy: the execution of the art-loving Charles I, the dispersion of his art collection, and the recession of the English mind—barring Milton—during the chaotic Commonwealth. The Puritan influence bowed its head during the Restoration, but it returned with William III and the Hanoverians, and in Methodism it took a reinvigorated form. Beauty was again a sin.
There were some minor achievements in the minor arts. Fine soft-paste porcelain was produced in Chelsea (1755), imitating Meissen and Sèvres. Birmingham japanners made fortunes in lacquered ware; one of them, John Baskerville, grew rich enough to indulge in printing fine editions of English bards. Rococo curves in riotous fancy decorated books, fabrics, furniture, vessels, Sheffield silver, the Rotunda at Vauxhall Gardens, and some rooms in Chesterfield House and Strawberry Hill.
Sculptors were just beginning to be distinguished from masons. The leading sculptors in England were of foreign birth, though they usually became British citizens. Peter Schaemaekers came from Antwerp and joined Laurent Delvaux in carving the statue of the Duke of Buckingham and Normanby in Westminster Abbey. Greatest of these aliens was Louis Roubillac, son of a Lyonese banker. Coming to England in 1744, he was rapidly advanced as a protégé of the Walpoles. He executed the bust of Shakespeare now in the British Museum, and that of Handel now in the National Portrait Gallery. Queen Caroline favored him, sat for him, commissioned him to make busts of Boyle, Newton, Locke, and other English worthies for her grotto at Richmond. Chesterfield, a man of taste, called Roubillac “the Pheidias of his day.”1 Roubillac died a bankrupt in 1762, after a life of devotion to his art.
Architecture was in a Palladian ecstasy. The rising wealth of upper classes prospering discontentedly under the Walpolian peace financed a thousand grand tours, during which British gentlemen imbibed a liking for Roman temples and Renaissance palaces. Venice was always on the itinerary; on the way the traveler stopped at Vicenza to admire Palladio’s façades; and on their return they littered England with classical columns, architraves, and pediments. In 1715–25 Colin Campbell issued his Vitruvius Britannicus,which became the bible of the Palladians; William Kent (1727) and James Gibbs (1728) furthered the style with their architectural manuals. In 1716 Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, printed a sumptuous edition of Palladio’s texts, and in 1730 he published Palladio’s restorations of ancient edifices. His own country house at Chiswick included a replica of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda at Vicenza, with columned portico and central dome. Burlington was an openhanded patron of literature, music and art, friend of Berkeley and Handel, of Pope and Gay.
In 1719 he brought back with him from Rome a young architect, William Kent, who had won a papal prize for his paintings and was also an enthusiast for everything classical. Housed till his death in Burlington House (still, in its second incarnation, a center of English art), Kent became the most popular and versatile artist in England. He painted ceilings at Houghton, Stowe, and Kensington Palace; he designed furniture, dinner plate, mirrors, glass, a barge, and costumes for fashionable ladies; he carved the statue of Shakespeare in the Abbey; he was a leader in promoting the “natural” English garden; as an architect he built the Temple of Ancient Virtue in the Stowe gardens, Devonshire House in Piccadilly, the Horse Guards House in Whitehall, and the prodigious Holkham Hall in Norfolk.
In 1738 Lord Burlington submitted to the London City Council Kent’s Palladian plan for Mansion House, residence of the lord mayor; a member objected that Palladio was a papist; Kent’s design was rejected; George Dance the Elder, a Protestant, received the commission and acquitted himself well. But in that year the excavations began at Herculaneum; the discoveries there led to the unearthing of Pompeii (1748 f.); in 1753 Robert Wood published The Ruins of Palmyra, and in 1757 The Ruins of Baalbek; these revelations gave the classical campaign in England an irresistible verve, and put an end to the baroque exuberance that had flowered in Vanbrugh’s palace for the Churchills, Blenheim. In 1748 Isaac Ware, another protégé of Burlington, built Chesterfield House in Curzon Street.
In their enthusiasm the Palladians forgot that classical architecture had been designed for Mediterranean skies, not for English winds and clouds. Colin Campbell was a special sinner in adopting Italian models without adapting them to English winters; his Mereworth Castle gave scant entry to the sun, and the Houghton Hall that he built for Robert Walpole sacrificed living space to majestic halls inviting icy drafts. James Gibbs, a disciple of Christopher Wren, used the classic style to fine effect in the Church of St. Mary-le-Strand in London (1714–17); its steeple is a lyric in stone. To the Church of St. Clement Dane, built by Wren, Gibbs added (1719) a steeple too lofty for its base, but still precariously beautiful. He capped his work in 1721 with the classic portico and Corinthian columns of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, at Trafalgar Square, Finally in the Radcliffe Library (1737–47) he created a perfect harmony of columns and dome at Oxford.
The architectural splendor of Bath was due principally to John Wood. His dominating conception was to bind individual dwellings into a single mass; so he designed and began, and his son John ably completed, the massive “Royal Crescent”—thirty houses behind a united front of 114 Corinthian columns—severely but not irreparably damaged in the Second World War. Nearby Wood Senior and Junior built the “Circus” (1754–64), a handsome circle of residences faced by a continuous frieze and a three-tiered colonnade; here once lived the elder Pitt, Thomas Gainsborough, and Clive of India. For three sides of “Queen Square” Wood designed but never completed another series of homes united behind a palatial Renaissance façade. Much of this town-planning and -building program was financed by Ralph Allen, whom Fielding took as model for Squire Allworthy. For Allen the elder Wood raised a magnificent Palladian palace at Prior Park (1735–43), two miles outside Bath.
The poverty of Britain’s masses was equaled by the splendor of her palaces. Allen’s temple at Prior Park cost £240,000. A competitive craze inspired nobles and merchants to raise immense mansions for hospitality and display. According to Hervey, Robert Walpole earned the lasting enmity of Lord Townshend by building Houghton Hall on a still more lavish scale than Townshend’s neighboring Raynham Park. Lord Lyttleton denounced this “epidemical madness” of palatial building; his wife, however, demanded a new palace, in Italian style; he yielded to her at the point of repetition and to the point of bankruptcy; when the palace was finished she left him for an Italian opera singer of uncertain sex. Soon England and even English Ireland were dotted with such show houses of the rich. Tours were organized, guidebooks were published, for visiting these lordly dwellings, their gardens, and their picture galleries. The fame of these edifices reached as far as Russia; Catherine the Great asked Josiah Wedgwood to make her an imperial table service decorated with views of English country seats.2
Most of the paintings in England were housed, and for the most part concealed, in these aristocratic homes; there were as yet no museums where pictures could be viewed by the general public. Patronage went chiefly to foreign artists, and almost entirely for portraits of notables who hoped to live on canvas while rotting in wood; there was no market for landscapes or “histories.” When Carle Vanloo came to England in 1737 so many pedigreed faces clamored to be pictured that for several weeks after his arrival the train of carriages approaching his home rivaled that before a theater. Large sums were given to the man who kept the register of his engagements, as bribes to advance their appointments; else one might have to wait six weeks.3
The “Royal Society of Arts,” founded in 1754, tried to stimulate native talent with competitions and exhibitions, but the demand for English art dallied for another generation. Joseph Highmore, a pupil of Kneller, secured a few purchasers by picturing scenes from Pamela,4 and Thomas Hudson caught a fraction of Handel’s vitality in the portrait that he painted in 1749.5 Among Hudson’s pupils was young Joshua Reynolds, “who,” he predicted, “will never distinguish himself.”6 Sir James Thornhill had more foresight. He won success with portraits of Newton, Bentley, and Steele; he painted the inner cupola of St. Paul’s, and ceilings at Greenwich Hospital and Blenheim Palace; and he achieved vicarious immortality by surrendering his daughter in marriage to the greatest English artist of the age.